Degustation without Doldrums
Claim to fame: A new driving force in contemporary Australian cuisine
Reason to go: Deft cooking and polished service but a distinctly fun and buzzy setting.
To look out for: A handful of relaxed snacks at the bar – hello deep-fried olives stuffed with anchovies.
There might be a whisper of Fritz Lang in the name, and a touch of Metropolis in the décor, but at Automata there’s nothing mechanical about the food. It’s all too common for ambitious young cooks to make claims about keeping their menus dynamic when they first open their restaurants, and pledging fealty to seasonality is part of the script for even the most jaded of TV chefs, but in reality, the business of being busy often gets in the way of creativity, and “seasonal”, to many veterans of the trade, simply means any ingredient available in the market, regardless of its provenance.
But when Clayton Wells left the sous-chef role at Momofuku Seiobo he stuck to his guns, opening a place of his own with the backing of Peng Loh, a Singaporean hotelier whose passion for restaurants has produced celebrated collaborations with high-profile chefs such as André Chiang, Jason Atherton and Nuno Mendes in Asia and the UK. Wells took the training he picked up at such local high-end heroes as Quay and Tetsuya’s, combined it with his experiences from Copenhagen’s Noma and London’s Viajante, and put it all to use crafting punchy five-course menus that have all the impact of a more traditional fine-diner degustation, but with the nimbleness of thought and an edge of innovation more akin to what you’d see in smaller, less handsomely resourced venues opened by many of Wells’ contemporaries.
As the playlist slips from DJ Shadow to Radiohead, the savvier diners wander towards a seat at the communal central table from the five-seat bar, where they’ll have stopped for a bite of burrata injected with shellfish oil, the only thing Wells has allowed to stay on the menu long enough to gather something like signature-dish status. Most likely they’ll have paired it with a glass of something interesting from the infinitely chipper and inventive sommelier, Tim Watkins.
Where longer menus at the big end of town can lead to longueurs, the five courses Automata dinner keeps things fast and fresh: peeled grapes in a variety of colors dressed with yuzu, dried shiso and wakame segues seamlessly into beautifully handled slivers of bonito and kombu butter cut with blushing curls of pickled cipollini onion, and fronds of dill. Things veer towards the less-expected with half a grilled baby cos (romaine) lettuce garnished with duck hearts and a dusting of za’atar spice, while smoked beef finds a hearty complement in pumpkin, brown butter and tamari.